Executive Spotlight: How To Tell An Employee They’re Underperforming

Manager talks to an underperforming employee at work
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In every company, there are usually overachievers and underperformers. For underperforming employees, managers need to figure out a way to tell these employees that they're underperforming while also motivating them to work harder and meet their goals.

We recently asked our leading executives for their advice on how to tell an employee they're underperforming.

Here are their responses...

Lisa Perry, Global Marketing Executive

As a marketing executive, one of the most challenging aspects of your role is addressing underperformance within your team. Delivering constructive feedback can be uncomfortable, but it is essential for the growth and success of both the employee and the organization. Throughout my career, I’ve used these seven effective strategies to communicate with an underperforming employee, ensuring a respectful and supportive approach that encourages improvement.

1. Preparation is Key: Before initiating a conversation about underperformance, gathering relevant data and facts to support your assessment is crucial. Review the employee's job description, performance metrics, stakeholder feedback, and specific instances of subpar performance. Identify the areas in which they are falling short and the impact it has on the team and organizational goals. This preparation will help you approach the conversation objectively and ensure that your feedback is specific and constructive.

2. Understand Their Perspective: When addressing underperformance, it's essential to consider the employee's perspective. While you may believe they are not meeting expectations, they may have a different understanding of those expectations. Take the time to listen to their viewpoint and clarify any misalignments between their perception and the role, assignment, or job description. By fostering open communication and understanding, you can bridge the gap in expectations and ensure everyone is on the same page moving forward.

3. Focus on Behavior and Performance: When discussing underperformance, it is crucial to focus on specific behaviors and performance outcomes rather than personal characteristics. Avoid using judgmental language and provide objective feedback supported by evidence. Communicate the expectations that were not met and highlight the impact of their underperformance on the team or organization. Focusing on the actions and results can help the employee understand what they need to improve upon and avoid making it a personal attack.

4. Use the Feedback Sandwich Approach: The feedback sandwich technique starts and ends the conversation with positive and constructive points, with critical feedback sandwiched in between. Begin by acknowledging the employee's strengths, achievements, and valuable contributions. Then, provide constructive feedback, emphasizing the areas where improvement is needed. Finally, conclude the conversation positively, offering support, guidance, and resources to help the employee succeed. This approach helps maintain the employee's motivation and self-esteem while addressing the areas of concern.

5. Collaborative Goal Setting and Action Plan: To facilitate the employee's improvement, involve them in setting goals and developing an action plan. Ask for their input on overcoming their performance challenges and achieving the desired results. This collaborative approach fosters ownership and engagement from the employee. Together, define specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals.

6. Regular Check-Ins and Tracking: Once you have set goals and developed an action plan with the employee, it's important to establish regular check-ins to track their progress. These check-ins are opportunities to review their performance, provide guidance, address any questions or confusion, and offer further clarification. By maintaining ongoing communication and monitoring their progress, you can identify any potential obstacles or challenges early on. These check-ins also allow you to offer support and adjust the action plan if necessary, ensuring that the employee stays on track towards meeting their goals.

7. Documentation for Clarity, Alignment, & Accountability: Maintaining documentation throughout the performance improvement process serves as a means of accountability and a tool for clarity and alignment. Documenting the agreed-upon expectations, action plans, and next steps ensures that you and the employee have a clear record of what was discussed and agreed upon. This documentation helps avoid confusion or miscommunication and provides a reference point for future discussions. By keeping detailed records of conversations, goals, progress, and any adjustments made, you can ensure that both parties are aligned and on the same page, fostering a productive and transparent working relationship.

Remember, effectively addressing employee underperformance aims to inspire improvement and create a culture of continuous growth and development within your team.

Lisa Perry helps companies build leadership brands, driving loyal customers & delivering profitability. She does this through a process that builds brands consumers love. Her goal is to help companies develop, monetize, and grow their brands.

Michael Willis, Sports Business Operations Executive

Manager talks to an underperforming employee during a meeting

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My first thought is: what’s the temperature of what’s happening inside the company now? If the company is in a season of staff reductions, this could be the “perfect storm” for making the employee a candidate for dismissal.

If this is an employee I see as a valuable part of the team, then as a manager, I need to figure out how to get the employee back on track by investing time and energy into a fix.

  1. Start an investigation.
  2. What’s not meeting the standard? I need specifics.
  3. Meet one on one with the employee.
  4. Lead the conversation with the many good things that the employee is doing.
  5. Go into a detailed discussion on the item(s) not meeting the standard.
  6. Plan an action plan to correct the issue.
  7. After a short time, meet again with the employee to see the results of the corrected action.

In closing, managers need to act when the deficiency first occurs. That action could be an observation of the deficiency. Build your plan of action to be a resource to make the employee better.

If the deficiency is a resistance to change or company culture, it might be time to move on from this employee.

The window to fix underperformance might be short in a fast-paced, results-driven environment.

Michael Willis has 18+ years of experience working with accounting & sports organizations and has managed P&Ls of $10M - $125M+ with budgets of $3M-$50M+. He worked for the NFL for 22 1/2 years, mainly with the game officials working on the financial/accounting side of the business.

Ana Smith, Talent Architect & Global Learning Strategist

Manager listens to an underperforming employee during a meeting

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Addressing employee underperformance can be a very delicate task, but with a structured approach, you can effectively communicate the issue and help the employee sustain improved performance. Here's a step-by-step process for handling this situation:

  1. Preparation and planning:
    a. Gather data: Collect objective performance metrics, feedback from colleagues, and any other relevant information to support your evaluation of the employee's underperformance.
    b. Define expectations: Clarify the job responsibilities, performance standards, and specific areas where the employee is falling short. Identify the desired level of performance for each area.
  2. Choose an appropriate time and place:
    Schedule a private meeting with the employee at a mutually convenient time and select a quiet location where you can have an uninterrupted conversation.
  3. Open the conversation:
    a. Start on a positive note: Begin the meeting by acknowledging the employee's strengths and past contributions. This sets a constructive tone and helps the employee feel more receptive to feedback.
    b. Express concern: Clearly communicate your concern regarding the employee's current level of performance. Use specific examples and objective data to support your observations.
  4. Seek their perspective:
    Give the employee an opportunity to share their perspective on their performance. Ask open-ended questions to encourage them to reflect on the challenges they may be facing or any factors that might be impacting their performance.
  5. Provide clear feedback:
    a. Be specific: Clearly communicate the gaps between the expected and actual performance, focusing on behaviors and outcomes. Avoid generalizations or personal attacks.
    b. Use the SBI (Situation-Behavior-Impact) model: Describe the specific situation, highlight the observed behavior, and explain the impact of their actions on the team or organization.
    c. Active listening: Give the employee a chance to respond to your feedback, allowing them to express their thoughts or concerns. Listen actively and demonstrate empathy.
  6. Collaborative goal setting:
    Work together with the employee to develop a plan for improvement. Set specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals that address the areas of underperformance. Ensure the employee understands the expectations and the consequences of not meeting them.
  7. Provide support and resources:
    Identify any resources, training, or mentoring opportunities that can assist the employee in developing the necessary skills and knowledge. Offer your assistance in addressing any obstacles they may encounter.
  8. Regular check-ins and feedback:
    Schedule regular follow-up meetings to review progress, provide constructive feedback, and offer support. Recognize and acknowledge improvement, reinforcing positive behaviors.
  9. Offer training and development:
    Provide opportunities for professional development that target the specific areas where the employee needs improvement. This could include workshops, seminars, online courses, or mentoring programs.
  10. Recognize and reward progress:
    Celebrate milestones and achievements along the way. Acknowledge the employee's efforts and progress publicly when appropriate, reinforcing their motivation to sustain improved performance.

Remember, it's important to approach this process with empathy, fairness, and a genuine desire to help the employee succeed. Building a supportive environment and providing ongoing guidance can contribute to the employee's long-term growth and improved performance.

Ana Smith helps people & organizations achieve their full talent potential by developing and co-creating people strategies and customized solutions, and turning them into impactful outcomes and collaborative relationships, using coaching as the "red thread."

How do you tell an employee they're underperforming? Join the conversation inside Work It Daily's Executive Program.

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